5 minute read

Charles Robert Darwin

British naturalist whose theory of organic evolution through natural selection revolutionized science.

Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England. His father was a successful provincial physician, and his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), had been a distinguished intellectual figure. Young Darwin attended the Shrewsbury School, and his early failure to achieve academic distinction continued at Edinburgh University, where he studied medicine, and at Cambridge University, where he studied theology. While at Cambridge, however, Darwin enthusiastically pursued natural history as an avocation, drawing the attention of botanist John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861) and geologist Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873). In 1831, through his connection with Henslow, Darwin joined the expedition team aboard the survey ship H.M.S. Beagle headed for the coasts of South America, the Galápagos Islands, New Zealand, and Tasmania. There is some indication that Darwin went on the voyage in order to accompany Captain FitzRoy. FitzRoy, as captain, was not to socialize with the lower status crew members on the ship, and he was worried about maintaining his mental health during the long, solitary voyage. (FitzRoy later committed suicide.) During what turned out to be a five-year voyage, Darwin, a creationist, recorded his observations. Upon his return to England, Darwin developed his theory of evolution, one of the major intellectual achievements of the nineteenth century. However, because of his creationist perspective, some of the observations made during the voyage were not useful in the development of his evolutionary ideas. In 1858, when another scientist, Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) shared his observations gathered in the Malay Archipelago, Darwin hastened to publish The Origin of Species to ensure his own work would receive recognition.

Darwin's theory of evolution postulates that all species on earth change over time, and that process is

Charles Darwin (The Library of Congress. Reproduced by permission.)

governed by the principles of natural selection. These principles hold that in the struggle for existence, some individuals, because of advantageous biological adaptation, are better able to occupy effectively a given ecological niche and therefore will produce more offspring than individuals who are less able. Realizing that his theory challenged biblically oriented views about the nature and origins of humans and animals, Darwin was extremely cautious and continued his research for another 18 years before publishing it in 1859 as On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Every copy of the book was sold on the first day of publication. Within a few years, scientists were convinced of the soundness of the theory, although popular debate about its ideological and theological implications has continued to the present.

Although psychology was one of the fields for which Darwin's theory had revolutionary implications, it was largely left to others—notably Darwin's cousin Francis Galton—to expand them publicly. However, toward the end of his career, Darwin published three books in which he explored how human mental qualities could be understood as the result of evolution. In The Descent of Man (1871), he supported the controversial position that human beings are descended from animal ancestors. In line with this idea, he argued that the mental activities of humans and animals are fundamentally similar. He identified the presence in animals of "human" qualities such as courage and devotion, and "human" emotions, including pride, jealousy, and shame. After examining these and other common mental functions, such as memory, attention, and dreaming, Darwin concluded that the mental difference between humans and the higher animals is one of degree rather than kind.

In The Expression of the Emotionsin Man and Animals (1872), Darwin posited that human emotional expressions have evolved over time because of their link with reactions that have had adaptive or survival value. For example, an animal baring its teeth in rage is literally preparing to fight; thus its emotion gives it a physical advantage. Similarly, Darwin postulated that the "fight or flight" reaction, a heightened state of nervous arousal, was a mechanism that aided survival. He also put forth that human reactions which no longer have any clear survival value probably did in the past and that the similarity of emotional expression among all known human groups suggests a common descent from an earlier pre-human ancestor.

Darwin's final contribution to psychology was the publication in 1877 of Biographical Sketch of an Infant, based on a detailed log he had kept on the development of his eldest child, who was born in 1840. This milestone in the history of child psychology was probably the first publication of its type. One seminal idea expressed in this short work is that the individual's development parallels the development of the species to which it belongs. (Darwin had earlier made a similar observation about the development of the fetus before birth.)

Darwin's work had far-reaching influences on the theory and practice of psychology. Its emphasis on the individual's adaptation to the environment helped establish the "functional" view of the mind and of human behavior, influencing such thinkers as John Dewey and James Angell (1869-1949) in the United States, who together founded the functionalist movement at the University of Chicago. Darwin's conception of the continuity between humans and other species gave the study of animal behavior a new importance. Sigmund Freud's younger colleague, George J. Romanes (1848-1894), to whom Darwin turned over his notes on animal behavior shortly before his death, established the field of comparative psychology. Paralleling the science of comparative anatomy, this field seeks to provide insights about human beings by studying the similarities and differences between human and animal psychological functioning. In addition, Darwin's principle of natural selection led to a greater interest in variation and individual differences among members of the same species.

Darwin's other books include The Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), Insectivorous Plants (1875), and The Power of Movement in Plants (1880). He was awarded membership in the London Geological Society in 1836 and won election to the Royal Society in 1839.

Further Reading

Clark, Ronald W. The Survival of Charles Darwin: A Biography of a Man and an Idea. New York: Random House, 1984.

Darwin, Charles. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882. Edited by Nora Barlow. New York: Norton, 1969.

De Beer, Gavin. Charles Darwin: Evolution by Natural Selection. London: Doubleday, 1963.

Gruber, Howard E. Darwin on Man: A Psychological Study of Scientific Creativity. London: Wildwood House, 1974.

Ridley, Mark. The Darwin Reader. New York: Norton, 1987.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists